All students need to read diverse books

“I’d never read a book on my own before this year. I didn’t really like reading. I just finished my 4th book of the year in Mr. Smith’s class, and I kinda like reading now.”

-one of my second period students speaking to another teacher on my hall

A culture of choice independent reading is ingrained into my classroom, from the extensive library of books on my shelves to the daily book talks that my students and I give to one another.  Students in my class get the first 10 minutes of every class to read from a book of their own choosing, and long story short, they read A TON more over the course of the year than their peers in neighboring classrooms.

I work in a Title I public school in which nearly 90% of the student population is either African-American or Latino, so my classroom library primarily contains books with authors and characters that look like my students.  My kids deserve to see themselves in the texts that they read.  My first period reading support class is currently reading All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds, a book that deals with the social injustices that exist for African-Americans in their interactions with law enforcement. My Language Arts classes are currently reading Monster by Walter Dean Myers, a novel that examines the prejudices that remain in the justice system and how that system works against people of color. I supplement these books with informational articles about relevant issues and people: Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Stefon Clark, etc.

I have various students that are reading or have read The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, and I Am Alfonso Jones.  I’ve read these books as well and held small group discussions with my students that have enjoyed them, too.  These books deal with uncomfortable topics like white privilege and police brutality.  We talk about these things. I acknowledge to my students that I understand the number of benefits I enjoy in this country simply because I am a white man.  We lament how unfair that is and we talk about ways that we can make meaningful changes in regards to these shortcomings in our society.

My girlfriend teaches History at the elite private school in our town, and recently she learned that the 9th graders at her school were reading both The Hate U Give and Dear Martin.  Over 80% of her school is comprised of affluent white students, and that’s exactly who needs to be reading THESE books.  When my students read those aforementioned texts, they get angry and frustrated, probably because many of the issues in the books are realities for them and their families.  However, for these private school students, reading a book from the perspective of an African-American female teenager (The Hate U Give) is most likely a point of view that they have never considered.  Trying to understand what it’s like to be discriminated against for no reason other than the color of a person’s skin (Dear Martin) is a situation that your average white private schooler has not encountered before.

The fact that the students at my girlfriend’s school are reading these books is uplifting.  It gives me hope for the future. It makes me want to get these types of books in the hands of white high school students across the country as quickly as possible so that they can see and feel what it’s like to be a marginalized person in this country.  If we want to continuing progressing on Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe towards justice, then we must have discussions about social injustices in every school, and not just in the ones in which the students doing the talking are also members of the oppressed group.

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Experimenting with restorative justice

While my students were working in small groups on Thursday, two students in nearby groups got into a verbal altercation that sounded like it was getting heated quickly.  One of the students escalated things by telling the other student that he would “beat his ass”.

The first-year teacher version of myself would most likely not have known how to handle this situation, if for anything other than lack of experience. I might have acted like I didn’t hear what was said and moved closer to the students; or, I may have given both a verbal warning and left it at that.

The second-year teacher version of myself most likely would have removed the student that cursed from class immediately to quell the situation.  I probably wouldn’t have engaged in a dialogue with the punished student other than telling him which room he needed to go to in order to complete his assignment.

I will be done with my sixth year of teaching in a little over a month, and here is how I handled this particular situation:

I had both boys stop working and come into the hall with me.  I began by asking Gabriel, who was on the receiving end of the cursing, to explain to me what he said that got Phillip (the one who made the threat) so riled up.  He told me that he was joking around with another boy at Phillip’s table, and that he didn’t mean any harm by it. I pointed out to Gabriel that Phillip was clearly upset by what he had said.  Gabriel acknowledged the same and apologized to Phillip.

I then turned to Phillip and explained to him that his aggressive tone probably put Gabriel on the defensive.  Phillip agreed and promptly apologized to his classmate.  By the time I sent each of them back into class to finish working, they were both smiling (aside: I did tell Phillip before he re-entered class that the next time he curses like that I will be writing an office referral).  Crisis averted.

As I walked back into the room, I was visibly on cloud nine.  I have been listening to multiple podcasts lately dealing with restorative justice in schools, and I realized that I had just implemented a form of it in the hallway outside my classroom. By simply getting each student to consider the perspective of the other student, I facilitated an interaction between them that resulted in them calming down and squashing whatever beef had sprouted between them. Not only that, but each of them was able to save face in front of their classmates since the conversation occurred outside the room, and my relationship with each student instantly became a tiny bit stronger.

I’ve been trying to incorporate more meaningful socioemotional development into the lives of the students that I teach this year by getting them to consider the point of view of the people around them as well as how their actions might be impacting others.  Last week, it was my turn on the 7th grade hallway to host “silent lunch”, a punishment for students that continue to not meet classroom expectations after multiple warnings.  In the past, when I’ve had silent lunch in my room, I spread the 5 or 6 students out around the room and watched them like a hawk for the full 20 minutes.  If a student talked or made a disturbance, I would add another day of silent lunch.  However, the same students continued to be in silent lunch for the entire year, which means (A) it wasn’t a very effective consequence, and (B) the students weren’t learning anything to help them improve their behavior.

I decided to mix things up a bit last week in silent lunch.  I had all 6 students each day sit at the big table at the front of my room so that we could eat our lunch together, like a family.  I started off by asking each kid their favorite color and then their favorite desert in an attempt to discover what commonalities we shared. Then I moved onto the tougher questions: why are you here? Who was involved in your incident? How do you think they felt during the incident?  What can you do to improve if this incident potentially comes up again?

In short, the kids were confused, mainly because I wasn’t making them be silent. Also, I think they thought that I was looking to use the questions to corner them into a “gotcha” moment.  However, once they realized that we were more or less just analyzing each of their particular situations, they really opened up and responded honestly.  Will all of these kids stay out of silent lunch for the final 6 weeks of school?  Probably not.  However, I’m certain that they are now more conscious of the fact that their actions do impact others after considering the perspectives of the teachers and students involved in their episodes.

A teacher with 29 years of experience told me during my first year of teaching that teachers get 50% better at classroom management every year, and while I cannot prove it quantitatively, I kind of think he’s right.  As a Language Arts teacher, I’m constantly imploring my students to ponder the various perspectives of the characters in the books that we read; I’m just now learning that the same strategy can be used when reteaching expectations to our students as well.

Taking an optimistic mindset into Professional Learning days

I won’t see my students tomorrow because our district has a designated Professional Learning (PL) day.  I can already hear the collective groans from teachers everywhere.  A good number of teachers view PL as a waste of time; something that is taking away from the smorgasbord of tasks that teachers already have piled high on their plates.  However, in my current district, the PL has been phenomenal, and I have gotten a number of wonderful strategies and ideas that have really shifted how I teach Language Arts to my 7th graders, several of which are listed below.

Three years ago, a University of Georgia professor gave me a copy of Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller at a PL session.  That booked totally transformed how I teach reading to my students.  Before reading Miller’s text, my classes read four novels a year as a class (or one per unit), with everyone reading the same book.  Today, my kids are all reading different books of their own choice for the first 10 minutes of every class period.  Needless to say, my students are reading WAY more than before and they are learning to explore various genres of books on their own.  In addition, the majority of my students are forming a relationship with literacy that previously was not present.  We only have our students for a year, so it’s our job as teachers to help them make reading a lifelong habit, and that can only be done if students learn how to take ownership of their reading lives.

Another instructional strategy that I took away from a PL that I have found to be highly effective in helping students master the concept of argumentative writing is the CSET strategy.  This technique shows the students how to craft an argumentative paragraph that contains a claim (C), a set-up that shows where this information is coming from (S), a piece of evidence from the text (E) and a tie-in (T) sentence that shows how their evidence supports their claim.  The CSET strategy can initially be taught to the students using cartoons, Pixar Shorts or New York Times Op-Docs to help them understand the basic structure.  Then, I can begin giving them CSET assignments that require them to support a claim based upon either our class novel or an informational text.  Because this strategy only requires the students to produce an effective paragraph, it doesn’t seem as daunting to them at first. However, once they master how to create one strong paragraph, I can challenge them to create another one that argues the same viewpoint. Eventually, students can produce multiple CSETs, and they are able to craft a well-organized argumentative essay with several reasons that all support a claim with valid textual evidence.

A final strategy that I have been using a lot this year comes from the text Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies (Beers, Probst), and guess what? I gleaned it from a PL day. When my students read informational texts, instead of just assigning a question set for them to answer when they finish, this year I have been applying a Notice & Note strategy and I have really seen a difference in how my students engage with nonfiction texts.  Before reading the text, we have a whole class discussion about how when we read or hear something that surprises or shocks us, it’s because we are usually learning something new. Then, while my students read a news article, they label three things that surprised or shocked them.  Once they finish, they confer with a partner or small group and review what surprised or shocked everyone.  The discussions that manifest from this one question are phenomenal to observe, and the students interaction with the text is at a much deeper level.  When we come together as a class to recap their observations, our whole group discussions are filled with rich and astute comments. At the end of class, students will typically write a short response that highlights one thing from the text that truly shocked them and why.  This strategy has definitely enhanced my students’ ability to identify central ideas in informational texts as well as their ability to pull out key details from the text.

A final blessing that I have gotten from PLs in my district is a host of educational apps that I have used regularly in my ELA classes.  Our school is 1:1 with computers, so it is imperative that I attempt to engage my students with 21st century tasks.  I’ve had students create oral arguments using Flipgrid, Youtube, Voki and Screencastify.  I’ve reinforced grammar concepts using NoRedInk. I’ve introduced new material to students using Edpuzzle. All of our classwork is pushed out to students using Google Classroom.  My exit tickets are often are done electronically via Linoit.  All of these aforementioned apps were presented to me in different PL sessions.

It’s certainly possible that I have been lucky by being in a district that values PL and provides us with strategies and tools that we can immediately take to the classroom, and other teachers elsewhere have not been as fortunate.  However, I also think there is a likelihood that teachers may be guilty of approaching PL days with a less than optimistic outlook.  Or, it could be a combination of the two. Either way, my advice to teachers everywhere is to head into the PL days with the expectation that you are going to be given something that can be applied to your classes.  I know that’s going to be my mindset tomorrow morning.